After a successful Elite Training program in Las Vegas last month, USITT caught up with three first-time participants to pick their brains on their experiences.

Stage managers Mason Bunkelman, Ashlynn Abbott, and Avery Evans spoke on quenching their thirst for knowledge through the minds of renowned Cirque du Soleil professionals to exploring new programs and making lifelong connections. These young industry hopefuls provided a tell-all even the most seasoned industry professional can relate to.

Why did you apply to Elite?

Mason Bunkelman: I thought that the Elite training program would be a great opportunity for me to reach beyond my own experiences with my university’s smaller arts program to stretch myself in a new environment to bring knowledge back to the other technicians at my school.

The Elite training program was a fantastic opportunity to discuss concepts with general stage managers for Cirque du Soleil such as discipline and legality that aren’t always extensively covered in collegiate stage management courses.

Ashlynn Abbott: This past year was my first year at the USITT Conference and I participated in the Stage Management Mentor Project (SMMP) as well. This year has been a big boon for me in terms of opportunity and growth, particularly out of school, and I was interested in both further development as a stage manager and learning more about the realities of working with Cirque du Soleil.

I was so impressed and grateful for my experience with SMMP that I knew this was an opportunity was something I had to strive for.

Avery Evans: I looked at the experiences offered and the various opportunities that it could hold for me, it was a no-brainer.

Best experience while at Elite?

MB: My best experience at Elite was probably having the chance to see the way different Cirque stage managers lay out their prompt books and the calling stations in different venues. For a show that doesn’t have a script, like Ka, or a show that relies heavily on counts more so than a specific score like that of the Blue Man Group, stage managers really have to show the extent of their personal creativity in conjunction with their organizational abilities to develop streamlined calling systems that can be picked up by anyone on the stage management team.

AA: Through the training, I felt affirmation in the work I’ve done and the professional artist I am, while feeling like I received thoughtful guidance, tools, and coaching to help me grow to that caliber of work. Through both USITT and Cirque du Soleil, I felt valued and respected as a young professional. It was equally special to get to know the others in the Elite program, in and out of my track.

AE: Meeting seven other diverse individuals with different stories and obstacles, but realizing that we all shared the same passion for stage management and how “hungry” we were for anything there was to offer really blew my mind.

Favorite console/machine you used while there?

MB: Stage managers largely don’t use any uber-specialized consoles or machines, but the stage management group was lucky enough to see Aurora, which is the program developed by the Cirque IT department to allow all stage managers and coaches to more easily plug cast members into roles for each day’s show.

AA: The Aurora program, Cirque du Soleil’s proprietary software and it was SO cool. It is a thoughtful and well-crafted program that any stage manager would dream of and I really enjoyed learning about it and training on it.

AE: Using Aurora. The nicest and most detailed software that Cirque created and maintains in the facility. I enjoyed my demo using it.

Who influenced you most during Elite?

MB: I was heavily influenced by Christine Troscher, USITT’s director of education and training, and Stacey Myers, the GSM for Ka. Christine and Stacey were both very welcoming to all Elite members and were willing to openly discuss their own experiences with introversion and the ways in which an introverted nature can affect a career in technical theatre.

AA: Stacey Meyers and Alana Clapp influenced me the most. It was the combination of their perspectives, experiences, and energies that helped us all learn and inspired us in different ways. These women are brilliant and inspiring on their own, but seeing them work and train together was not only helpful because it gave us a really well-rounded experience, as they are very different people and stage managers, but it showed us how stage managers in this company work together.

AE: Stacey Meyers and Jan Nelle Rivers. They both influenced me heavily. I declare it an extreme blessing to have met these two individuals and for them to have spoken words of encouragement and wisdom for me to absorb.

Is Elite a program you would apply for again?

AA: I would love to do Elite again because I enjoyed the experience so much, but the training made me feel prepared for the next steps in my career and growth. I would consider applying for (and am looking at other USITT training that I could attend) training in another track, like automation, rigging, or sound that would pique my other interests and make me a more well-rounded stage manager.

Why do you believe programs like Elite benefit those in the live entertainment industry?

MB: Elite trains stage managers for topics that aren’t always covered in a traditional classroom environment. We spent a lot of time in the stage management room discussing discipline, which is genuinely one of the hardest parts of being a stage manager and is difficult to “teach.” The concept of working to strike a balance and understanding the way legality, attitude, body language, and more play into effective discipline plans makes more sense to me now than ever before.

AA: Programs like Elite give an important connection between young aspiring professionals and those working in our industry. The training at Elite is unlike any we would experience short of a long-term internship or job, and especially with companies of this caliber, this bridge of training and personal connection is crucial.

It’s easy to feel like a job is too large to achieve, or you don’t have the training or thinking Cirque is cool without knowing why or if it would be a good fit for you. Connections to these companies in this way helps make us more well-rounded, prepares for our futures, and gives us a stepping stone that is unique and valuable.

AE: Elite is important because it shows that your goals and dreams are attainable. Just a year ago I never thought I could even be in the positions that I have been. I really think the experience is so valuable, to work with professionals of one of the most dominant performance companies in the country is simply comparable to nothing else. It gave me hope and provided even more fuel to the fire to motivate me and to push myself to new limits.